The first BMW I ever drove was a convertible 3 Series. We’re talking late ’90s, and it was a Lapis Blue, or maybe Baltic Blue, E30 323i cab’ that belonged to a girlfriend of a girlfriend. The drive, from somewhere in Brighton to somewhere in Hawthorn, on a warm summer’s night, with the top down and music up, was perfect.
Make no mistake, to me this was a cruiser. I didn’t attempt to explore the free-revving nature of the 2.3-litre six, and there were no well-cambered bends to tip it in to. I had a blue-and-white roundel on the wheel and the city lights above, and frankly, this was the ultimate driving machine.
And so now, years, kilos and greys later, I’m back in another convertible 3 Series by way of the 2020 BMW Z4 sDrive30i. And it, too, is a lovely cruiser.
You see, while the Zed is very much a lone wolf in the BMW range, in this mid-spec configuration, the two-door, two-seat, cloth-top roadster may carry the look of a purposeful sports machine – but its composition and hardware promote a much more relaxed approach. Almost as if it were a rag-top 330i.
And to be honest, that suits me fine.
Priced from $104,900 before options and on-road costs, the sDrive30i is well equipped in standard trim and features the M-Sport styling package, a full suite of driver-assistance tech (including adaptive cruise control and rear cross-traffic alert), heated seats (ours in Oyster leather), DAB radio, and twin-LCD dashboard displays as part of the deal.
Our car adds the Shadowline ‘black grille trim’ pack ($500), black 19-inch 799M wheels ($550), M-Tricolour seatbelts ($560), and the Precision Package ($2400) that bundles in the price of the metallic paint, 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system and interior lighting function.
This positions the sDrive30i exactly $20K between the entry-level Z4 20i and more potent Z4 M40i.
It is a striking-looking car, but not what you would call classically beautiful. It is, however, undeniably modern and athletic, and particularly impressive in San Francisco Red – one of five choices. The G29 Z4 can seem a bit disjointed at first, with complex angles and shapes mixing with vents and creases from every angle, but the more you look, the more it makes sense.
It even works with the top up, presenting a bold statement from the duck-tail spoiler on the rear deck, to the tip of the curiously creased bonnet that takes up over one-third of the car’s overall length alone.
Fun fact: the midpoint of the top of the windscreen frame is the precise centre of the car. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Stacked headlamps on a Bimmer? We haven’t seen that since… Never. And the grille, while wide and separated to accentuate the car’s aggressive frontal stance, is dappled not vaned? Even the new AMG models have a vaned grille. What can you wrap in M-Tricolour vinyl now?!
Step inside, though, and it is all BMW. Just like every other BMW.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t bad. The 12.3-inch LCD instrument cluster and 10.25-inch iDrive infotainment touchscreen present a formidable amount of technology in a usable and intuitive interface. The iDrive OS7 software and virtual assistant are still top of the class, and like anything from a 1 Series to an X7, the BMW switchgear and ergonomics all work exceptionally well. It’s just that on a car with such an in-your-face presence as the Z4, it feels perhaps a little ordinary.
Not all interiors can be bespoke, but for the best part of $130K on-road, a few more metallic flourishes would be nice. I did, however, like the stitched faux-leather dashboard and neat Z4 motif on the roll-hoops behind the headrests.
I will say, too, that the ski-port hatch from the reasonably sized 281L boot is quite handy, but the cupholders that require the armrest lid to be open to use are just dumb.
But enough of stitches and switches, how does a two-seat 3er that weighs just 50kg less than a five-seat 3er get down to business?
And, yes, I am going to persist with this.
I know you are all aware that the BMW Z4 is a joint development with Toyota’s Supra, and produced to be a calculated and entertaining sports GT. And, yes, I am across the fact that despite using the BMW CLAR modular platform and the same B48 2.0-litre turbo four and eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, there is very little ‘technically’ similar with a 3 Series, but the Zed is less about numerical data as it is about interpretation.
That said, here’s some numerical data.
The G29 Z4 is one scant millimetre shorter than that E30 cab’ (arguably, they would probably be the same, as I did recall the owner making a rather energetic touch-park on more than one occasion), but a whole 385mm shorter than a G20 3 Series. The gap is almost entirely between the wheels (381mm variance), which at 2470mm is 100mm shorter than the classic ’30.
Despite this, the Z4 offers surprisingly good room in the cockpit, albeit for just you and your best friend. Even at 6’3” I was able to feel comfortable behind the wheel and had plenty of head room with the cloth top in place. Which it wasn’t for long.
The roof movement is smooth and takes around 10 seconds to raise or lower, and can even be done on the move up to 50km/h. Which is why, exactly 12 seconds after starting the car, I found out the air-conditioning isn’t quite up for a 2020-spec ‘mild summer’s day’ in the low 40s.
But I write this for you, regardless of the challenge, and persevered into the shade of the Burnley tunnel to only endure the smell of old socks emanating from some offal transport vehicle, which had been seemingly baking in the dusty oven of suburban Melbourne for at least an hour too long.
Open-top motoring is certainly a sensory experience.
Open roads arrived soon enough, and the Z ate up the tarmac without a hint of stress. Comfort mode presented enough response, and the Harman Kardon stereo still managed to punch a good beat despite the open-air performance.
Begin to wind things out toward the sharper end of the stick, though, and the Z4 starts to become less refined. The claimed 6.5L/100km combined fuel consumption is but a memory as the injectors demand double figures at every twitch of your foot. The exhaust note, more brash now, but still muted, like someone blowing into a cardboard tube at the end of the paper towel roll. The corresponding pace is fast enough, but not thrilling.
The 190kW 2.0-litre is sprightly and responsive enough, that thick band of torque offering a 400Nm punch from 1550rpm to 4400rpm, but it is performance without drama. The shifts are quick and accurate, but there’s no snap, crackle or pop to reward you for a change – up or down. A capable machine simply lacking in adrenaline.
Even the ride, firm enough with the dampers in Sport, is surefooted and confident, but slightly more enjoyable when set back to Comfort using the Sport Individual setting.
Push the car through a constant-radius bend, and you’ll have to continually adjust your steering input. Heavy, light, heavy, light. The electrically assisted rack is still communicative and there’s no lack of confidence, even when pushing harder… But with all this effort, it honestly feels as though you are trying too hard.
It’s this interpretation that makes the sDrive30i feel like an airy and personal 330i. The power, response, dynamics and emotion all capping at a level of an executive sports sedan rather than a pointy sports weapon.
But that’s okay. If you dial yourself back and enjoy the Z4 as a more relaxed cruiser, it really starts to come into its own.
Do you want more punch, more theatre? Pony up for the M40i and the extra 60kW, which is over 30 per cent more oomph. As really, right here, the Z4 30i is fast enough. Sporty enough. Sure, it could sound a little more vibrant, but I’d say that of a 3 Series, too. Even the wagon!
The seats are comfortable and the driving position well suited for long miles. Forget trying to be on the edge, find that U2 playlist and listen to him.
Roof down and at highway speeds, you can use the Bluetooth phone with decent clarity. Consumption drops from the mid-high teens into comfortable single digits (6.0L/100km at 100km/h cruise on the freeway). All of this is even better at night, with the warm air swirling around you, and the lights of the city or the stars the only covering above.
It’s a highly livable car. Quiet and comfortable with the top up, and even better with the roof down. A sports car disguised as a super-convertible 3 Series.
In reality, the 2020 BMW Z4 sDrive30i isn’t that far removed from where that little blue E30 was, in my heart at least, with a roundel on the wheel and the stars twinkling above. It might have come from a lineage of more sporting and sharper brethren, but dialled back, the 30i settles into the sweet spot where a roadster can simply be enjoyed.
It’s softer, more mature… More middle-aged. And arguably better for it. Just like me.
As, yes, I’m back. This time around, I’ll be driving strategy and outcomes more than cars, but if you are a long-time reader, it’s great to ‘see’ you all again. I’m excited to be here to help lead CA into another exciting chapter of growth in the automotive world. And if you’re new, try the fish. It’s excellent.